Ottawa failing to meet Jordan's Principle deadlines for First Nations kids' care most of the time

Documents show Indigenous Services Canada responded to just 33 per cent of urgent Jordan's Principle cases on time during the 2022-23 fiscal year. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Documents show Indigenous Services Canada responded to just 33 per cent of urgent Jordan's Principle cases on time during the 2022-23 fiscal year. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Indigenous Services Canada is taking longer to respond to urgent requests to get First Nations children access to medical care and social services and it's putting lives at risk, critics say.

Under a program known as Jordan's Principle, the federal department is supposed to process such urgent requests for medical care and social services within 12 hours. Experts say many children are likely to face irremediable harm if they don't get assistance within that window.

New data shows the department often fails to provide this type of timely urgent care and met the 12-hour deadline only 33 per cent of the time during the 2022-23 fiscal year — a drop of 19 per cent since the year before.

The federal government provided the numbers in response to an order paper question submitted by NDP MP Charlie Angus, who shared the information with CBC News.

"This government is completely failing First Nation children," said Angus, who represents the northern Ontario riding of Timmins—James Bay.

"When we have an urgent case, that damn well better be a priority. And it doesn't seem to be."

Brett Forester/CBC
Brett Forester/CBC

More recent figures filed by Ottawa with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal confirm the decline in service.

Indigenous Services Canada's (ISC) compliance rate dropped to 24 per cent for urgent cases and 29 per cent for non-urgent cases between April 1, 2023 and Feb. 29, 2024, according to the tribunal documents.

The data shows a downward trend in ISC's ability to assist First Nations children, whose families and care providers are turning to the federal government for help in preventing developmental delays and saving children's lives.

"To see such low levels of compliance for the most needy kids is really, really concerning," said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

Compliance rates trending down

Jordan's Principle is named after Jordan River Anderson of the Norway House Cree Nation, who died in 2005 at the age of five in the midst of a two-year battle between Manitoba and Ottawa over who would pay for his care.

In 2007, the House of Commons adopted the principle in River's name and Ottawa launched the Jordan's Principle program in 2016 to compensate qualifying families for their children's health and therapeutic services.

In 2017, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered Canada to process Jordan's Principle requests within a 12 to 48 time frame.

In response to a challenge from Blackstock over the government's compliance issues, ISC lawyers are now asking the tribunal to extend Jordan's Principle timelines and, in some cases, eliminate them.

For urgent individual cases, the federal department wants the deadline stretched from 12 hours to 48 hours. For non-urgent cases, the department wants to extend the deadline from 48 hours to whatever it considers reasonable, in response to what it calls a significant increase in demand.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak said she doesn't want to see those deadlines change.

"The Assembly of First Nations is concerned with ISC's backlog in processing Jordan's Principle requests," she said.

Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press
Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press

ISC isn't struggling only with urgent cases.

Compliance rates for non-urgent cases, which are supposed to be processed within two days, are also down.

Indigenous Services Canada responded to 36 per cent of non-urgent cases between 2022-23 on time — a 10 per cent drop from the year before, according to the government's response to the NDP's order paper question.

Nunavut NDP MP Lori Idlout warns that if changes aren't made immediately, children will suffer.

"They're going to die in poverty or they're going to die from being addicted," she said. "They're going to go to school hungry. They're going to not get the education they need."

Data shows large regional discrepancies 

The top three categories of approved requests for Jordan's Principle since 2022 were for medical travel, education and economic support, according to documents filed with the tribunal.

Indigenous Services Canada estimates that on March 27, its Jordan's Principle sector was coping with between 40,000 and 82,000 backlogged requests, the documents say.

Dustin Patar/Canadian Press
Dustin Patar/Canadian Press

The tribunal documents also reveal differences in how Jordan's Principle is administered across the country.

Ontario saw the lowest compliance rate of any province from April 1, 2023 to February 29, 2024 for urgent cases. The tribunal documents show Indigenous Services Canada responded to just 15 per cent of urgent cases in Ontario within the Jordan's Principle timeline, while the department met the deadlines in Quebec and the Atlantic region 54 per cent of the time — the highest compliance rates recorded.

For non-urgent cases, the documents say First Nations children in Manitoba experienced the slowest reaction time — just 14 per cent of non-urgent requests for care in the province met the deadline — while children in Alberta saw their requests processed before the deadline 44 per cent of the time — the fastest response time.

"The message is in certain parts of the country, if you're an Indigenous child that needs medical care, you're on your own," Angus said.

None of the provincial ISC operations performed worse than the national office on meeting Jordan's Principle deadlines. The national office responded to just six per cent of urgent cases and five per cent of non-urgent cases on time, the records show.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu declined CBC's request for an interview.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for her department said the number of requests for services under Jordan's Principle has grown rapidly, from 15,800 requests in 2018 to 110,000 requests in 2022.

"While it means more children are getting the health, educational and social products, supports and services they need, it poses a challenge for the government to keep up with the volume," said Ryan Tyndall, ISC spokesperson.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Tyndall said the government is taking a number of steps to reduce delays, such as hiring more staff, assigning teams to address backlogs and exploring automation to manage requests.

"There is still more to do, so we are working with First Nations partners, provinces and territories to develop long-term approaches to better address the unique needs of First Nations children," Tyndall said.

Since 2016, Ottawa has invested nearly $8.1 billion in Jordan's Principle.

Blackstock said she hopes the changes make a difference but wishes the department had acted sooner.

"When you have a problem, you deal with it at the earliest stages," she said. "You don't wait until it's a crisis."